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The Strong, Silent Type

What does a quiet man like U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen have to do to get people talking about him? How about getting DQ'd before taking a shot

On the evening of Feb. 15 Retief Goosen was standing in the ballroom at Riviera Country Club sipping a cocktail and doing what he least likes to do: talk. The occasion was the announcement of Goosen's two-year deal to endorse Grey Goose vodka, so public relations chitchat was required. Goosen, notoriously shy, spoke easily about his new baby (he and wife Tracy's second child, Ella, was born in November); his new beach house in George, South Africa (he also has houses in London and Orlando); and his return to the Tour after a four-week hiatus. Someone asked, "Would you have been happier had you stayed home for a few more weeks?"

"I would've been," he said. "We were having such a good time at the beach."

The next morning, as if to prove the point, Goosen overslept and was 15 minutes late for his 6:40 tee time in the Nissan Open pro-am. Following brief conversations with Tour rules official Mark Russell and commissioner Tim Finchem, Goosen was back in his car and Riviera was in the rearview mirror. Goosen had been disqualified from the tournament without ever hitting a shot.

The DQ, mandated by the Tour's 14-month-old zero-tolerance policy on missing pro-ams, was a shame. Everyone, even Tiger Woods, was looking forward to having Goosen, the defending U.S. Open champion and the fifth-ranked player in the world, back in the mix, further enlivening what has been the most exciting West Coast swing in years. "You guys want to talk about a Big Four," Woods told reporters, "but don't forget about Goose."

That's a measure of the respect afforded Goosen, who has won 21 times worldwide and also has clearly demonstrated all the requirements needed for winning major championships. The simplicity of the 36-year-old Goosen's swing is much admired on Tour, as is his brilliant short game, but what distinguishes Goosen from his peers is his mental makeup. "He's a great putter and a great scrambler," says Vijay Singh, "but that's because of his patience. That's his real strong suit and what makes him a great tough-course player."

Says Ernie Els, a fellow South African and Goosen's closest friend, "His talent is definitely the way he keeps himself calm in strenuous conditions. He showed that last year [in the Open] at Shinnecock. We were all busy complaining about the course, but Retief simply kept quiet and did his thing. That was the difference."

Goosen's on-course calmness and off-course reticence suggest a rather dour personality. It's hard to imagine, but according to Els, Goosen is one of the funniest guys on Tour. One has to take Els's word for it, though, because Goosen rarely socializes with or even talks to any other player.

"He keeps himself to himself," says Lee Westwood, who has competed against Goosen for 11 years on the European tour. (Goosen joined the U.S. Tour full time in 2002, a year after winning his first U.S. Open.) Says Presidents Cup teammate Nick Price, "I've been with him at dinner, and if you want him to talk, you have to ask a question. He's not a big communicator."

Goosen offered a glimpse of his brand of humor at last year's Tour Championship, which he won by closing with a six-under 64 to blow by Woods and Jay Haas. Woods was asked if Goosen, when they've been paired, ever had much to say. "No, he doesn't really talk," Woods said. "We played two matches at the [2003] Presidents Cup in South Africa, and he didn't say a single word."

The next day, when Woods's comments were repeated to him, Goosen said softly, "I thought in match play you were supposed to intimidate your opponent."

The only rap on Goosen is that his game may not be dynamic enough to go low and pile up victories on the many less challenging courses on the PGA Tour, thus dooming him to forever trail Singh, Woods, Els and Phil Mickelson in the World Ranking. Although Goosen finished among the top five in birdie percentage and scoring average last year, the fact remains that besides his victories in the two Opens and in the Tour Championship, he has only two other wins in the U.S., and he has won just once with a score lower than 12 under par. Els concedes the point but says that Goosen is still a work in progress. "Retief has shot a lot of low scores in his lifetime," he says. "I simply don't think he's gone full throttle yet in America."

If Els is right and Goosen lights up the Tour, the wallflower routine will have to go. Two days after his victory at Shinnecock Hills, Goosen was a guest on Live with Regis and Kelly alongside the overcaffeinated hosts. The appearance was cringe-inducing, like watching a shelled-up turtle getting screeched and pecked at by a pair of deranged seabirds. Toward the end of the segment Regis Philbin threw a finger in Goosen's face and challenged him to a tennis match, pointing to his U.S. Open trophy and shouting, "I'll play you for it!" Kelly Ripa was overly interested in the champion's payday. When Goosen told her he had won $1.2 million, she said, "Makes you want to take up golf!" Goosen didn't blink, but he had so little to say that it seemed as if he weren't really there.

Goosen is beginning to reap the financial rewards of success. Last year he launched a course-design business, breaking ground on three layouts in South Africa. And the Grey Goose deal is one of several endorsements. At the Riviera reception, however, Goosen showed how much he has to learn as a pitchman. Early on, after switching from a cosmopolitan to a lemon drop, he said, "I've never really drunk vodka."

That admission didn't go over well with his agent, Sherry Whay of IMG. She later took Goosen aside and explained, "Retief, you drink vodka. You've always drunk vodka." Not often does an agent reposition a client as an imbiber, and the Los Angeles Times took full advantage. The paper linked Goosen's disqualification to the Grey Goose launch, drawing the connection between evening cocktails and a missed tee time the next morning. Goosen was done in by his famous sense of humor. He had jokingly told the handful of writers who attended the event that he'd "had a few tonight" and that "somebody is going to have to drive me home." In fact, Goosen had exactly two drinks. And he left the event, which started at 5:30 p.m., alone at 6:15.

Leaving L.A., Goosen drove south on I-405 to Carlsbad, where he visited the TaylorMade test center and then spent the balance of the week--possibly with his mouth taped shut--at nearby La Costa Resort and Spa, site of this week's Accenture Match Play. At La Costa no one cares how much you drink, how late you sleep or how much or how little you have to say.


Photograph by Fred Vuich




An appearance on behalf of Grey Goose led to an erroneous report that overindulging caused Goosen to oversleep.